In days long gone, when people still wandered from one place to another, they simply took the few possessions they had with them. To begin with, they probably used bags or knapsacks to transport their belongings. But once people started settling down, they accumulated more and more possessions, with the result that these little pieces of luggage started turning into bigger transport containers and eventually into travel trunks, the predecessors of the modern suitcase. Once people had settled in a permanent location and found themselves a dwelling, these same travel trunks were simply transformed into stationary chests. People wanted a permanent place for their goods and chattels, just as they wanted a permanent home for themselves.
And that, in a nutshell, is how all furniture came to be related to the humble suitcase. The word coffer, by the way –a synonym for chest in Middle English – is derived from the Greek word “kóphinos”, meaning “big wicker basket”. The travel trunk was certainly the predecessor of the chest, regardless of whether it was made of wicker or wood. In all advanced ancient civilisations, as well as during the Middle Ages, chests were a standard feature of any house. In Germany, the “hope chest” was still common well into the 20th century, and accompanied the bride when she left home to get married. Mainly filled with good-quality home textiles and tableware, this chest symbolised the basic equipment the woman would need for her work in the marital home. Even today, old chests are still a common sight in many homes. Yet they no longer feature in current furniture production statistics, for they have been superseded by cabinets and other modern storage solutions.
In times gone by, items of furniture were purely utilitarian objects with designated functions. At least for ordinary people, the aesthetic aspects we now associate with furniture did not come until much later. It was only during the Renaissance (15th to 16th century) in Italy, and then largely during the European Rococo period (18th century), that new and attractive furniture started to emerge. The unwieldiness of the Middle Ages was abandoned in favour of more handsome pieces. However, the long history of furniture – and especially of storage furniture – is also an indication of people’s inner need to be able to use things as and when required, as well as of their desire to own things. “That’s why, even today, no modern household lacks any of the basic items,” says Dirk-Uwe Klaas, Chief Executive of the Association of the German Furniture Industry. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s an everyday object or a collector’s item,” he adds. “People have always felt the need to store things.” And these days, their choice of furniture isn’t limited to trunks and chests.